Thursday 8 December 2011

Visual Impairment and body language

People with a visual impairment miss out on a significant number of social cues. Social skills based on visual cues are the most significant skill set which challenge  many people with a visual impairment. 

Playing with Spectacles
Alfred P Poll was an optician in New York with many famous celebrities as clients. He put forward a pop psychology view of spectacles. It was his view that in many social contexts what people do with their glasses is very telling and has a distinct meaning. A chairman who removes his glasses is signalling the end of the meeting. Wagging spectacles instead of a finger is a gentle reprimand. The person who keeps unfolding and folding his glasses is indicating severe boredom. 

Julius Fast, who wrote ‘Body Language’, said, ‘as an extension of the body eyeglasses can tell us much more about the person who wears them.’I use this example to introduce the idea that visually impaired young people can have a great difficulty with reading people’s body language generally. The acquisition of social skills and social development in general are a challenge to children with visual impairments and much of it is the failure to accurately read body language cues.

Social skills
Social skills comprise a set of behaviours all people use to interact and communicate with each other. They are linked closely to a particular culture and tied to the rules of a particular society.

The Social Greeting
An adult I know recently lost the use of one eye. She told me the most embarrassing thing is shaking hands because she cannot see precisely where the other person’s hand is. So she compensates for that by holding out HER hand and letting the other person do the shaking. I was impressed this week when I met a blind lady (with some useful vision however) working at Great Ormond Street and she held out her hand to shake my hand. In point of fact I am not sure who reached out first. I only recall both hands meeting. But she has certainly learnt the skill of shaking hands as a blind person.

Establishing eye contact is a simple but very important social skill. Making eye contact does several things. It grabs the other person’s attention. It also creates a relationship with the other person. Looking someone in the eye is actually quite an intimate thing and people who find it difficult to form relationships have difficulty with it. So do visually impaired children. What you do with your eyes is a powerful social cue. Looking directly at someone can also be intimidating. I was in a meeting when someone started staring at me making me feel very uncomfortable. It was more like glaring. Not being able to establish eye contact can create misunderstandings, it can create bad feeling. But it is often harder for someone with a visual impairment to do this.

To look someone in the eye can be awkward for a different reason. If you have nystagmus and look at someone you know they can see your eyes wobbling so you then feel even more self conscious. You may turn your head away for that reason – fear of what others may think.

Suggestions to help a visually impaired youngster
A helpful way for a visually impaired child to overcome social awkwardness is to become familiar with the medical details and implications of their eye condition. This will enable them to explain how they see the world if and when they need to. It is very important for a person to understand their own eye condition but many children with nystagmus have not even heard of the word ‘nystagmus’ and would be unable to explain how they see. So it is my view that you have to demand that the eye doctor or the advisory teacher for visual impairment explains nystagmus to the child. They need to know so that they can explain their eye condition clearly and objectively to others, including teachers. Doing this accomplishes several things:

Self-advocacy puts a visually impaired child in control; it is empowering. They are now the expert as they know more than others about this topic. They become their own advocate speaking up for themselves; they are on the road to independence where they no longer rely heavily on someone else to speak up for them.

It gives information and removes fear. Fear of the unknown is the greatest single issue when you meet someone who is in any way ‘different’. If you don’t know why they look different or act different it can make you keep your distance or at the very least feel a little apprehensive. Information takes away fear. This is equally true with many teachers, who have a certain amount of fear when confronted with a child with sight difficulties for the very first time.

The more a person talks about their condition the more confident they become. Young people should be encouraged to bring up the subject as a matter of course. They should talk about it frequently like the weather. Before too long the subject of their eyesight will be an accepted part of conversation and will cause no embarrassment.

The more you talk about it the more it becomes part of the person’s identity. Teenagers and adolescents have a problem with identity. They are trying to find out who they are. A visually impaired child or young person needs to put their visual impairment at the centre of who they are. It is part of what makes them who they are. Whatever its implications, they are visually impaired. Denial becomes a difficult issue if a child will not accept they are visually impaired. Denial often takes the form of trying hard to be something they are not or trying hard to fit in with sighted peers as if they too had perfect eyesight. They might misbehave or behave eccentrically just to fit in. Accepting their disability is important in finding their personal identity. 

If a young visually impaired person talks about their eye condition positively others also come to accept it positively. In this way they receive positive feedback and a sense that they are respected. This is very important for a person’s own self esteem.

With visually impaired young people and children many social skills have to be specifically taught. Take for instance the social fact that everyone has their own personal space. It is not normally appropriate to approach very close to someone’s face. Little children who are visually impaired sometimes go up very close to another child. They are doing what comes naturally. Just as they hold an object up close and look close up at the TV so they may go close up to another child. But of course that may not be acceptable. The way to deal with it is to talk to the child and model behaviour that is acceptable.

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